Drones versus Privacy Advocates in California

17 12 2012

I recently posted an item about the use of drones by local municipalities, especially by first responders.  Today, I ran across the article below indicating that some individuals have great concerns about the use of drones by local governments.  The location of this dispute is in Alameda County, California.  As published by the Homeland Security News Wire, December 17, 2012:

Congress earlier this year passed legislation  ordering the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to accelerate the approval of the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for law enforcement and other domestic purposes, and law enforcement agencies around the country are moving to purchase drones. Some months ago  Alameda County sheriff Gregory Ahern said the county would purchase a drone to help with “emergency response.” According to Ahern, Alameda Sheriff’s personnel tested a UAV late last year and gave a public demonstration of the machine’s usefulness for emergency responses during the Urban Shield SWAT competition in late October.

Not everybody is happy with the domestic use of UAVs.  Arstechnica reports that Sheriff Ahern and his staff will have to wait to buy their drone  as the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California (ACLU-Norcal) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), have forced the Alameda County Board of Supervisors to pull a last minute agenda item from their meeting earlier this month which would have approved $31,646 in grant money from the California Emergency Management Administration. The ACLU-Norcal and the EFF are accusing Sheriff Ahern of attempting of securing funding for the drone without public scrutiny.

“Public policy shouldn’t be made by stealth attack,” ACLU-Norcal attorney Linda Lye told Arstechnica. Ahern denied trying to hide the purchase of the drone from the the public, and in  an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle claimed the UAV would not be used for blanket surveillance, as feared by opponents.

“This device is used for mission-specific incidents. We strive to gain the public’s trust in everything we do, and I would never do anything of this nature that would destroy the public’s trust beyond repair,” Ahern told the Chronicle. Documents obtained by the EFF say otherwise.

The documents show that sheriff department personnel have other intentions on how they would use the drone. A memo written by Captain Tom Madigan of the County Sheriff’s office in July, say potential uses for the drone include a range of policing uses that are exactly what concerns the ACLU-Norcal and EFF.

The memo reads:  The Alameda County Tactical Commanders were consulted, a regional group of SWAT team commanders throughout the County of Alameda. A UAV would be valuable to assist with barricaded suspects, surveillance (investigative and tactical) perimeters, intelligence gathering, rough terrain, suspicious persons, large crowd control disturbances, etc.

“UAVs have unprecedented capabilities to infringe on our civil liberties,” Trevor Timm, an attorney with the EFF, told Arstechnica. Timm added that drones can be equipped with cameras that can read heat signatures through a building or facial recognition programs.

Before a decision is made, the EFF and ACLU-Norcal want a public discussion to take place over the use of drones as well as a set of guidelines which would protect individual privacy and place limits on how drones can be used in domestic policing. The proposal would then be taken up by the County Board of Supervisors early next year.

The ACLU-Norcal released documents last week showing that the Sheriff’s office began receiving bids for drones from Aeryon, Lockheed Martin, and ING Engineering.

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